Just before public attention was diverted by China’s seizure of an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle — known commonly as an underwater drone — from the U.S. oceanographic survey vessel USNS Bowditch in the South China Sea, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) revealed commercial satellite imagery of new weapons systems installed on several Chinese-occupied Spratly Islands. The images, published by CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on December 13, appear to show anti-aircraft guns and anti-missile point defense systems on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, Cuarteron, Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi reefs in the South China Sea, contested features that China has built up into large, artificial islands with extensive airfield and radar facilities over the last several years.
Many analysts believe these weapons systems explicitly violate President Xi’s September 2015 pledge that China would not militarize the Spratlys and make the South China Sea dispute more dangerous and intractable. The weapons raise two significant questions, the first political and the second military. Has China broken its pledge? And do these weapons alter the regional military balance? These weapons may be an unwelcome development from a U.S. perspective, but it did not, and they do not.
“Necessary Defense Facilities”
China’s Foreign Ministry responded to questions about the weapons in AMTI’s imagery saying “China’s deployment of necessary defense facilities on its own territory has nothing to do with the so-called militarization.” Some have framed the spokesperson’s “necessary defense facilities” phrase as a post-hoc rationalization, but it is consistent with the official Chinese position dating back before the non-militarization pledge.
In April 2015, before Xi’s September statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that some construction on its Spratly features was for “satisfying the need of necessary military defense.” In June, the Assistant Foreign Minister made clear that its construction projects would include “some necessary facilities to satisfy the need of military defense.”
Observers may have believed that Xi’s pledge proscribed whatever “necessary” construction for military defense those previous statements alluded to. But in October, not long after that pledge, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson again said that China’s Spratlys construction was “mainly” for civilian needs, but included a “limited amount of necessary military facilities for defense purposes only. They fit well with the security environment around relevant Chinese islands and reefs. There is no such thing of China ‘militarizing’ relevant islands and reefs.”
This statement makes China’s position clear that facilities, and presumably weapons systems, that are for “defense purposes,” on its Spratly features are not included in its definition of “militarization.” While U.S. observers may have wanted that definition to be more expansive, this installation is consistent with what China has always said it would do in the Spratlys and it cannot be accused of changing the terms of its pledge.
“Does not impact or target any country”
Since before Xi’s non-militarization pledge, official Chinese statements have insisted that its construction was only for “necessary defense” purposes and that it “does not impact or target any country.” This latter phrase may imply that China defines non-militarization defensive construction according to whether or not it can project significant military power. As long as Chinese Spratly installations lack long-range power projection capability, they both meet China’s internal definition of non-militarization and leave the military balance in the South China Sea largely unaltered.
China possesses many capable, long-range weapons systems that could easily “impact or target” its South China Sea neighbors from those Spratly bases. Long-range anti-ship cruise missiles could close straits to warships. Long-range anti-air missiles might make the airspace over much of the South China Sea inhospitable to foreign aircraft. Both conventionally-armed medium-range ballistic missiles and squadrons of fighters or bomber aircraft could attack China’s rival South China Sea claimants. While China’s larger Spratly bases could accommodate those “power projection” capabilities, and may yet in the future, they do not right now.
Some analysts dismiss arguments that weapons are ever exclusively defensive, since even those intended or optimized for defensive purposes have some offensive utility. This is true, but anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems (CIWS), which AMTI believes to be the weapons captured in their imagery and installed at each of the facilities, have very limited range.
Unlike the long-range anti-air missiles that China deployed to the Paracel Islands last February with ranges over 100 nautical miles, anti-aircraft guns require targets to nearly fly overhead and cannot reach the cruising altitude of commercial jetliners. CIWS are even shorter-range weapons designed as a “last ditch” defense against incoming missiles, and would likewise require a target aircraft to fly practically overhead, and at even lower altitude to hit. Further, since these are fixed installations on immovable and relatively isolated islands, that theoretical offensive utility is vanishingly small because any potential targets would have to purposely bring themselves within those tight ranges.
“China does not intend”
It is worth revisiting Xi’s original statement on non-militarization:
Relevant construction activities that China are undertaking in the island of South — Nansha [Spratly] Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.
The nearly universal framing of this statement in the United States is as a “pledge” not to militarize the Spratly Islands. But Xi’s phrase, “China does not intend,” is much less binding than the word pledge implies. Had he meant it as an unbreakable pledge, one would expect a more definitive phrase like “China will not.”
On the other hand, intentions can change with circumstances, and official Chinese statements have long countered accusations of militarization by describing U.S. naval patrols as the real “militarization” threat. One Foreign Ministry spokesperson justified China’s defensive construction as a “completely understandable” reaction to the “high-profile display of military strength and frequent and large-scale military drills by certain countries and their allies in the South China Sea,” referring to the United States.
Admiral Dennis Blair, a retired head of the U.S. Pacific Command and President Obama’s first Director of National Intelligence, has long contended that China’s South China Sea bases are not militarily significant and would be indefensible in a major conflict with the United States. These new, fixed, relatively sparse and short-range defensive systems do not alter that calculus. China’s longstanding explanations of the defensive facilities it intended to build in the Spratlys, and its exclusion of that activity from Xi’s pledge, complicates any U.S. claim that China acted in bad faith or otherwise merits some punitive response. Since Xi’s pledge sounded more aspirational than definitive to begin with, it isn’t clear what basis the United States would have to act beyond increasing its own military presence even if China did deploy significant power projection forces to the Spratlys.
Recent reports by Fox News that U.S. defense officials believe China may be staging long-range anti-air missiles on Hainan Island for eventual deployment to the Spratlys suggest a more significant change in the regional military balance that the U.S. might not accept. However, as a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told a reporter who asked how the military facilities in the Spratlys did not constitute militarization, “I wonder how you understand the word ‘militarize.’” If military calculations begin to clash with diplomatic considerations in the South China Sea, the United States and China will finally need to agree on the fine print.